Looking Back At Exclusion: How Japan Stopped A Race To The Wage Basement In Canada By Preventing Its Labourers From Migrating To Canada and The U.S. In 1900 (Findings of the 1901 Royal Commission Report on Japanese Immigration.)

Looking Back At Exclusion: How Japan Stopped A Race To The Wage Basement In Canada By Preventing Its Labourers From Migrating To Canada and The U.S. In 1900

The material is carefully taken from the 1902 “Report of the Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration”. As you will note, the material states that the primary cause of the conflict between the host population of British Columbia (both whites and First Nations) and the Japanese labourers was economic. As we have pointed out before, the material states that the primary cause of the conflict between the host population and the Chinese labourers was also economic.

This matter is very clear throughout this 430-page document. As we have noted before, this picture contradicts recent federal government action to compensate Chinese Head Tax payers. It also contradicts a number of recent and past federal government statements which ignore the reality of that period in Canadian history.

One very important point to note is that the Japanese government in 1900 passed its own virtual “Japanese Labourer Exclusion Act” which, for a time, forbade Japanese labourers to migrate to Canada.


The following are major points made in the Report of the Royal Commission on Japanese Immigration (1902)(Pp.324-430):

(1) Japanese migration to Canada and the continental U.S. in the late 1800's was small, but its economic impact was significant because of the low wages the Japanese accepted.

There were important connections between Japanese immigration to the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. census prior to the Royal Commission stated that there were 86,000 Japanese in the U.S. About 61,111 (75%) of the Japanese were in Hawaii. The remainder were in a number of western U.S states. The Canadian census prior to the Royal Commission stated that there were about 5,000 Japanese in Canada. (P.389) As with the Chinese in Canada, almost all were in British Columbia.

Twelve emigration companies existed in Japan. Six of these had offices in the U.S. and Canada. These businesses obtained a $5 commission from each of the workers they sent abroad, and were probably motivated to send as many Japanese abroad as they could. However, the number of Japanese who were allowed passports was carefully controlled by the Japanese government which set a limit of 3 years for workers to return to Japan and which wanted to control debt levels of its citizens. These workers had to “give bonds before leaving”. (P.397) When questioned by authorities, the Japanese (mostly young, male, and without female companions) said they had come to make money and then return to Japan, buy property and stay there. They had not come as immigrants.

(2) Around 1900, wages in Japan for farm labourers and fishermen, the class to which most of these workers belonged, were around 15 to 20 cents a day. (P.389) To these Japanese workers, prevailing wages of $1 to $1.50+ per day in the U.S. and Canada were regarded in the same way that Americans and Canadians would have looked upon a gold strike in the Yukon. Obviously, the wages these people made in Japan could not pay for a trip across the Pacific and an American requirement to possess $30 which they had to show to an American inspector when they landed. So the question was, How could these people afford to get here?

The rote answer which many Japanese workers gave when they were asked this question was that their fathers or other relatives had mortgaged the family home to provide the necessary cash. The reality was probably that the emigration companies had loaned each of these people the necessary money. After listening to hundreds of these people, the Commissioner of Labour for the State of Washington said that he was convinced that “a large majority are contract slaves”. In other words, a contractor had paid their transportation and advanced them $30. The contractor required these people to work for him at wages specified by him until they had paid off their debt. (P.333)

(3) Although there were 4,759 Japanese in Canada according to the 1901 (?) census, over 10,000 Japanese had arrived in one year (between July 1, 1899 and July 1, 1900) and almost 5000 more in the previous 4 years. Since there were only 4,759 recorded in the Canadian census, where had about 10,000 Japanese (and any Japanese who had arrived before 1896 and had not been recorded) gone? The probable answer was they had migrated to the U.S. The other big question was: Why had so many come around 1900? The answer that the Royal Commission discovered was that Japanese emigration companies had actually sent large numbers of workers to Hawaii, but that an outbreak of bubonic plague in Hawaii and a subsequent quarantine had occurred while the workers were in transit. This caused the emigration companies to re-route the Japanese to Canada and the continental U.S. (P.389)

(4) What problems had the newly-arrived Japanese created in Canada? The chief complaint against the Japanese workers was the same as that directed against the Chinese labourers: that they worked for low wages—often lower than the Chinese who worked for 3/4 to 1/2 of the wages paid to the host population. This practice of working for lower wages had been firmly established in the 1880's by Chinese contractors who deliberately set the wages of Chinese workers, whom they imported from China, at rates significantly lower than the wage rates of workers in the host population in order to acquire labour contracts. The lower wages were not the result, as some allege today, of discrimination against the Chinese. Chinese contractors continued this practice and profitted from it handsomely until the time of the Chinese Labourer Exclusion Act of 1923. Contrary to conventional belief, the exclusion legislation was directed against Chinese labourers who together with Japanese labourers comprised about 1/3 of the British Columbia work force and who were the source of much of the conflict. Chinese businessmen, diplomats and students could still come to Canada.

Both Chinese and Japanese labourers displaced host population workers from employment, created economic hardship for these workers and their families, and caused displaced workers to leave British Columbia. Another consequence was that Chinese and Japanese workers discouraged workers from other parts of Canada and the U.K. from coming to B.C. (The total economic cost of host population displacement has not yet been calculated.)

A number of witnesses suggested to the Royal Commission that the solution to this problem would be for British Columbia and other provinces to pass Minimum Wage legislation. These witnesses believed that such a law would end the economic advantage that Chinese and Japanese labourers had over those of the host population. According to HRDC, Minimum Wage legislation was finally passed in 1918 in B.C. and Manitoba, but it was for the benefit of women. The first Minimum Wage legislation for males was enacted in 1925 in B.C.

(5) Another major complaint against the Japanese was that they had managed to become a major force in British Columbia's fishing industry by obtaining many of their fishing licences fraudulently. At the time, fishing licences were given only to citizens. In order to qualify for citizenship, the Japanese had to meet residence requirements in Canada, but many lied about when they had arrived and how long they had been here. Government officials discovered the fraud in a sting operation at a notary's office. The notary was subsequently banned from further practice.

In 1901, a total of 4722 fishing licences were in effect in B.C., most of them on the Fraser River. Japanese fishermen had almost 2000 of these licences, a phenomenally high number in light of their recent arrival in British Columbia. Many fishermen and canning factory owners said the river was being overfished. “Owing to this overcrowding, many fishermen stated they had to leave the business.” (P.391)

In summarizing this problem, The Royal Commission made this statement:

“…between four and five thousand Japanese (2000 licence holders plus 2000+ helpers) are engaged in the fisheries. …Many of them return to Japan after the fishing season is over, and the rest find employment where they can, in getting out wood and (shingle) bolts, in mills, boat building and other employments, working at a wage upon which a white man cannot decently support himself and his family, and creating a feeling so pronounced and bitter among a large class of whites, as to endanger the peace and be a fruitful source of international irritation. Thus, this great industry, instead of becoming a source of strength, is a source of contention and weakness.” (P.390)

The contention extended to the Chinese workers also because, as the Royal Commission noted, “The Japanese work more cheaply than the Chinese and are rapidly driving them (the Chinese) out of these fields of industry.” (P.395)

(6) First Nations had equally strong feelings. “Formerly, they (First Nations) used to get steady work all the time: now they cannot get regular employment, because of the Japanese and Chinese.” (P.392) First Nations witnesses complained bitterly and one uttered a threat. “The general consensus of opinion given by both the fishermen and canners would indicate that this industry is not dependent upon the employment of these people (the Japanese and Chinese). The fact that this industry has expanded to almost its present proportions, employing only whites and Indians, would indicate that the presence of the Japanese is not essential to its successful operation.”

“The fisheries should be utilized to promote the permanent settlement of the country, and at the same time create a hardy class from whom may be drawn recruits for the mercantile marine and the navy. The increased numbers of Japanese prevent this. They come for a temporary purpose; they send a large proportion of their earnings to Japan; they do not bring their familiies or make homes, or in any sense become permanent settlers, and an industry which ought to be a source of strength to the country is rapidly falling into the hands of those who exploit it for a temporary purpose to the exclusion of our own people and to the permanent injury of the country.” (P.392)

“Of the twenty thousand engaged in this industry at present, one half are either Chinese or Japanese.” (P.392)

“Cheap labour creates the condition which afterwards is said to make it necessary.” (P.393) “The normal condition between labour and capital is deranged and will continue to be, if this large immigration of unskilled labour should continue.” (P.395)

(7) By 1902, the Royal Commission reported, “the emigration of Japanese”… had “practically ceased, only 56 having arrived at Canadian ports in the last six months of 1901”. The Commissioners provided the following note sent by Viscount Aoki, Minister of Foreign Affairs, on August 2, 1900, to the Governors of the Prefectures (of Japan):

“You are hereby instructed to prohibit entirely, for the time being, the emigration of Japanese labourers for the Dominion of Canada or for the United States.” (P.396)

This virtual “exclusion of Japanese labourers” legislation (which had an effect similar to that of the 1923 “Chinese (Labourers) Exclusion Act” was passed after the British Columbia government had enacted legislation forbidding the employment of Japanese labourers on public works. The Japanese legislation had followed a series of diplomatic notes that were exchanged between the governments of Japan and the U.K. Around the same time, a series of notes were exchanged between Canada and the U.K. in which the British government asked the B.C. government to withdraw their legislation and pass “language-requirement” legislation which would have the same effect, but be more palatable to Japan. (Pp. 397-400)